Tillich, Paul (1886–1965)

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Paul Tillich, the German American theologian, was born in Starzeddel in eastern Germany, the son of a Lutheran pastor. He received a theological and philosophical education and was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1912. He served as an army chaplain during World War I and then taught theology and philosophy at Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, and Frankfurt. On Adolf Hitler's advent to power in 1933, Tillich immigrated to the United States, serving as professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary from 1933 to 1956. From 1956 until his death he held chairs at Harvard and at the University of Chicago.


Tillich's religious thought has been enormously influential, particularly in English-speaking countries. He was strongly influenced by existentialism, and he held, as did Søren Kierkegaard, that religious questions are appropriately raised only in relation to problems that are inherent in the "human situation" and that theological claims are not mere responses to theoretical puzzles. Thus, Tillich presents Christian doctrines as resolutions of practical problems. His discussion of anxiety in The Courage to Be is a good example of his method. He first analyzes thoroughly and with great sensitivity what he considers the three great anxieties of modern manthe anxiety of death, that of meaninglessness, and that of guilt. These three forms of anxiety are three modes of response to various kinds of threats from nonbeing, threats to which existence as such is subject. As a practical solution to this practical problem, theology presents God. By participating in God, who is the infinite power to resist the threat of nonbeing, man acquires the courage to exist fully, even in the face of such anxiety. Similarly, when a person becomes deeply aware of historical existence as full of ambiguities, he becomes filled with perplexities and despair. The Christian answer is the notion of the Kingdom of God, which is the meaning, fulfillment, and unity of history.

Knowledge of Reality

Tillich's concern was with the religious significance of the "human situation," and he held that religious questions arise out of human problems. In a similar vein, the only basis for an understanding of the ontological structure of reality is the analysis of human existence, of man's encounter with his environment. We can grasp the being of other things only by analogy with man. Tillich, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology, sees man as "that being in whom all levels of being are united and approachable." But man is not merely "an outstanding object among other objects." He is the "being who asks the ontological question and in whose self-awareness the ontological answer can be found." Man can proceed in this way "because he experiences directly and immediately the structure of being and its elements"because "the interdependence of ego-self and world is the basic ontological structure and implies all the others." Man is a self; "therefore selfhood and self-centeredness must be attributed to all living beings and, in terms of analogy, to all individual Gestalten even in the inorganic realm." In accordance with this view, Tillich takes concepts that he supposes to have their primary application to human existenceindividualization and participation, dynamics and form, freedom and destinyand designates them as the elements constituting ontological structure, applying them to being as such.


Tillich conceives of faith or, as he calls it, "ultimate concern" as a way of organizing human experience and activity. In his view, faith is an unconditional surrender to something and the willingness to recognize it as an absolute authority; an expectation that one will in some way receive a supreme fulfillment through encounter and commerce with it; a discovery that everything in one's life and one's world is significant only insofar as it is in some way related to it; and experiencing it as holythat is, reacting to it with an intimate blend of a sense of awe, mystery, and fascination.

Every human being, Tillich believed, has such an ultimate concern, but the objects of the concern vary enormously. Supernatural beings, historical persons whether religious or secular, nations, social classes, political movements, cultural forms like painting and science, material goods, social statusany of these may be the object of an ultimate concern. But despite what Tillich said, it would seem that such orientation around a single object is a rare achievement. Most people, it would seem, have several major interests. Moreover, there is a crucial difference between concern with an object, whether existent or thought to exist, and concern for the realization of some end. The significance of taking an end, like social status, as having authority is not clear. Nevertheless, Tillich's analysis of religiosity is a penetrating one, and it reveals the important resemblances between religiosity and nonreligious modes of personal organization.


Tillich tried to show that the religious life is more than an organization of human feelings and attitudes and that it involves a reference to a reality outside itself, a reference that can be validated. Although Tillich did not, like Kierkegaard, deny the religious relevance of rational investigation, and although he did think that ontology gives some support to religion, he did not believe in the validity of traditional metaphysical proofs of specifically religious doctrines and in particular of the existence of a personal God. Tillich did not, in fact, accept the notion of a personal deity. For him the doctrine of a supernatural person, like all religious doctrines, is to be conceived as an attempt to symbolize an ultimate reality, "being-itself," which is so ultimate that all that can literally be said about it is that it is ultimate. If the God of theism is a person, the often repeated charge that Tillich is really an atheist thus seems justified; yet Tillich can point out that in the past Christian theology has repeatedly found difficulty in the notion that God is a person in any straightforward or literal sense.

The Ultimate

Tillich defended his view that religious faith is objectively valid by claiming that an ultimate concern must necessarily have what is metaphysically Ultimate as its object. It is not clear, however, that if a concern is ultimate (in the sense of being the dominant interest of a person), the object of the concern is necessarily Ultimate in the relevant sense; that is, that the object of the concern is that on which all else depends for its being. Tillich has argued elsewhere that one can be ultimately concerned only with what is metaphysically Ultimate. Nothing can properly be of ultimate concern unless it is the ultimate determiner of the reality and meaning of our existence, and only being-itself occupies this position. From this conclusion it is only a short step to say that in ultimate concern one is always really concerned with being-itself, whether one realizes it or not.

Religious Symbols

But if being-itself is always the object of ultimate concern, what is the status of the various nonultimate entities on which ultimate concern seems to be focused? According to Tillich, as we have seen, the object of an ultimate concern is generally something relatively concrete, such as a person or a social group, and not, at least not consciously, some ineffable metaphysical Ultimate. Tillich claims that these concrete objects function as symbols of the Ultimate. They manifest the Ultimate to those who experience them as holy, and for those persons they point to the Ultimate; through them the individual participates in the Ultimate. Thus, ultimate concern has in a sense a double object. Unfortunately, Tillich never gave an intelligible account of these closely interrelated concepts of symbolizing and pointing to, which are so crucial for his position. Pointing to the Ultimate cannot consist in calling the Ultimate to mind, for admittedly most people have no such concept. The main difficulty is that being-itself is given such a fundamental position in Tillich's metaphysical scheme that one necessarily is related to being-itself at every moment in any way in which anyone could conceivably be related to it. Thus, if it is possible to speak of beings participating in being-itself, then each being necessarily so participates at every moment of its existence. There seems to be no room for any special contact with being-itself that could be generated by religious symbols when they are "pointing to it."

Defense of Christianity

As a Christian theologian, Tillich wanted to demonstrate that among ultimate concerns the Christian concern is the most adequate. He sometimes said that some ultimate concerns are "idolatrous" because they are directed at finite objects rather than at the Ultimate. But by his own principles Tillich could not say this, because every case of ultimate concern involves a concrete object that manifests or points to the Ultimate. If it did not so function, it would not be a case of ultimate concern. The only possible way of showing that one ultimate concern is more adequate than another would be to show that it served better as a symbol of being-itself. But since nothing can be said literally about being-itself except that it is Ultimate, a feature that nothing else can share, it is not clear how this could be done. Tillich's own argument for the superiority of Christianity seems itself to be in symbolic terms. He said that by dying on the cross, Jesus Christ, who is the basic symbol of being-itself in Christianity, underlined the fact that symbols have their significance not in themselves but as manifesting the Ultimate.

See also Atheism; Existentialism; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Philosophy of Religion, Problems of.


works by tillich

Translations of important works include The Religious Situation, translated by H. R. Niebuhr (New York: Holt, 1956), and The Interpretation of History, translated by N. A. Razetski and E. L. Talmey (New York: Scribners, 1936).

Tillich's magnum opus is Systematic Theology. 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19511963). Vol. I contains most of the philosophically interesting sections. The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952) is an existentially toned account of the spiritual situation of contemporary man. The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper, 1957) is the best popular account of Tillich's position. Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955) defends the thesis that ontological speculation has relevance to biblical religion. Theology of Culture, edited by R. C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), is a collection of Tillich's writings on the mutual relevance of theology and various aspects of culture.

On the notion of a religious symbol, see "The Religious Symbol," in Journal of Liberal Religion 2 (1) (Summer 1940): 1333, and "Theology and Symbolism," in Religious Symbolism, edited by F. E. Johnson (New York, 1955), pp. 107116.

works on tillich

For discussions of Tillich's works, see C. W. Kegley and R. W. Bretall, eds., The Theology of Paul Tillich (New York: Macmillan, 1952); W. P. Alston, "Tillich on Idolatry," in Journal of Religion 38 (1958): 263267; Paul Edwards, "Professor Tillich's Confusions," in Mind 74 (1965): 192214; and W. P. Alston, "Tillich's Conception of a Religious Symbol," in Religious Experience and Truth, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1961), pp. 1226.

other recommended titles

Adams, James et al., eds. The Thought of Paul Tillich. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.

Crossman, Richard. Paul Tillich: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Keyword Index of Primary and Secondary Writings in English. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Pauck, Wilhelm, and Marion Pauck. Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Rowe, William. Religious Symbols and God: A Philosophical Study of Tillich's Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Scharlemann, Robert. Reflection and Doubt in the Thought of Paul Tillich. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969.

Thatcher, Adrian. The Ontology of Paul Tillich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

William P. Alston (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)