When discussing the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, one cannot talk long before Paul Tillich comes up. Tillich, as much as any other theologian of his time, took seriously the need to show what the Christian faith can mean in a world where persons seem to no longer need religious faith in order to make sense of one’s place in the universe.
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Who He Was
Born in Germany in 1886, Tillich was the son of a Lutheran pastor. At the age of seventeen, while he was studying in Berlin, his mother died of cancer. Tillich persisted in his studies, earning his doctorate in 1911 from the University of Breslau. The next year, he was ordained as a Lutheran minister and served the German Army as a chaplain throughout the first World War, after which he began his career as a professor and writer. It was while he taught at the University of Frankfurt that his life drastically changed, when his lectures and speeches took aim at the new Nazi government, leading to his dismissal after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Reinhold Niebuhr, after learning of Tillich’s situation, prompted him to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Tillich taught for much of the next two decades. Niebuhr was so convinced of Tillich’s significance that he was able to persuade the school’s faculty to take a five percent pay cut in order to make hiring him a possibility. At Union, Tillich’s renown grew as he published several books that were read by both popular and academic audiences, with The Courage to Be becoming a classic of existentialist thought. He continued writing and lecturing until his 1965 death from a heart attack.
Why He Matters
Tillich, in an intellectual climate that opposed and discouraged such a goal, emphasized the need to show the meaning of Christian faith more than almost any other theologian of recent years. Furthermore, his theological works were not aimed solely at those who were already Christian. Instead, he integrated concepts from the larger “secular” world in order to communicate his ideas, and the Christian message, to a wider audience, showing those who were irreligious what it means to be religious in a general sense and, more specifically, what it means to be a Christian. Tillich did not seek to dismiss or invalidate other schools of thought that were prevalent, but rather sought to incorporate the best of their ideas into his own work. While, on a general level, this method may seem to pollute the Christian message, this is the same thing that St. Augustine did with the works of Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle nearly a millennia later. This shows Christians doing theology today that the insights of postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, amongst others, are not to proclaim the end of religious thought, but to spur it on in new and fascinating areas, which have not yet been explored. In these ways, Tillich provides a model for those aiming to explicate and show the value of the Christian message today.
God as Ground of Being:
For Tillich, God is not a being among beings – which he sees as reducing God to the level of creature, denying God the title of Creator. Tillich still goes further than this traditional confession that God is “Creator,” though, as he takes this to mean that God is the “ground of being.” To say that God is the ground of being is not to declare a scientific truth or an objective fact, but to testify that God is that which calls us to be who we most truly are – creatures with the capacity to enter into union with the divine. What calls us into selfhood does not derive from our own selves or efforts, but from a mystery that pervades all reality, calling all that is into being. Concretely, this means that it is God that calls not only the flower to bloom, and the bear to hibernate, but also the sinner to confess and repent.
Faith as Ultimate Concern:
Tillich disavows the idea of faith being belief in something that cannot be proven, choosing to define it instead as ultimate concern. For Tillich, to say “I have faith in God” is not to say “I intellectually believe in a divine being,” but to be grounded or driven by something we can never fully know, to be able to say, “I believe in the saving power of God, the ineffable which calls me to be who I most truly am.” The ultimate concern which is authentically religious fulfills the self and gives a sense of purpose and wholeness. This concretely means that essentially everyone is religious in some sense, yet that instead of God, many have faith in an idol bound to eventually disappoint and disillusion, one that, when exposed, decenters and destroys the self.
Method of Correlation:
The method of correlation, lying in the background of all his writings, is essentially the way Tillich seeks to ask and answer the questions of human existence. He sees philosophy as asking the questions that ultimately concern humankind – questions of meaning and existence – yet also believes philosophy’s abstract answers are not enough in and of themselves. Theology provides the meaning to these abstract answers, applying and grounding them in our present situation, through inquiry into the Bible, one’s own experience, and the tradition of the Church.
Where to Start
The Shaking of the Foundations: This is the first of Tillich’s three volumes of sermons, preceding The Eternal Now and The New Being. These volumes of sermons are his most accessible works, as he shows an ability to concretely display how his radical reinterpretation of Christian faith can be practical and meaningful to all persons of faith. While they are certainly a tad more difficult to read and understand than the average sermon you are likely to hear at your local church, whoever persists will find innumerable treasures and insights that are intellectually and spiritually nourishing.
Dynamics of Faith: In this short book, Tillich redefines faith not as uncertain belief in something that cannot be proven, but as ultimate concern. By doing so, Tillich is able to shift the conversation on faith away from issues of credibility and rationality to something more creative and, for many, more meaningful. Speaking for myself, it was this little book on faith that inspired a love for his work that has not dissipated nearly seven years later; perhaps it will do the same for you.
The Courage to Be: Probably Tillich’s most popular book outside of seminaries, it became an unlikely classic of existential thought in the mid-twentieth century, and deservedly so. Tillich, by looking at classic and modern conceptions of courage, shows the unique contributions Christian thought makes to the discussion and why religious faith may be a privileged way of confronting, accepting, and transcending existential estrangement. This would be the perfect place to start if not for the first few chapters, which are largely devoted to summations of previous philosophical conceptions regarding the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the book’s final chapter is one of the greatest sections Tillich ever wrote and still seems revelatory over half a century later.
Love, Power, and Justice: For those wondering what made Martin Luther King, Jr., appreciate Tillich’s work so much, this book may provide the best answer. Here, Tillich writes about the concepts of love, power, and justice, noting just how feeble each is individually, needing the contributions of the others in order to be fully and holistically actualized. It is a work that displays tremendous theological, philosophical, and ethical acumen, and one that is ever relevant in our contentious political climate.
Where Not To Start
Systematic Theology: This is Tillich’s masterwork and magnum opus, but I would caution anyone who wants to read this without having previously read any of his previous writings, which make his three volume Systematic Theology far easier to make sense of. Its language relies on previous works, and is more academic and difficult than in other works, which may quickly discourage first-time readers from continuing to explore his oeuvre. A first-time Tillich reader would be wise to consider this the capstone of their exploration into his thought rather than the entry-point. Nevertheless, its brilliance can hardly be overstated and anyone who falls in love with his thought should attempt to read it at some point.