Tillich, Paul Johannes

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TILLICH, PAUL JOHANNES (18861965), German-American theologian and philosopher, was born in Starzeddel (now Starosiedle, Poland), in Brandenburg, Germany, on August 20, 1886, the son of a Lutheran pastor. He attended the University of Berlin, from which he received his Ph.D., and the University of Halle, where he received his doctorate in theology. After passing his second theological examination at Halle, he was ordained into the ministry in 1912.

Career and Theory Formulation

During World War I Tillich served as a military chaplain. These years had a profound impact on Tillich's understanding of human reality. The effect of the war's devastation, both physical and spiritual, is reflected in a letter that he wrote in November 1916: "I have become purely an eschatologist [in that] what I, along with others, am experiencing is the actual end of the world of this time." Completing his military service in December 1918, Tillich received his qualification for university teaching (Habilitation ) at the University of Berlin in 1919. This was also the year in which he published one of his most influential essays, "On the Idea of a Theology of Culture" (Über die Idee einer Theologie der Kultur ). The essay presented the principles for interpreting culture theologically that Tillich followed throughout his career and that became the basis of a new field of theological study. The guideline that Tillich used for such an interpretation was, in his formulation, that the Gehalt (import, or substance) of a cultural work is "grasped in the content (Inhalt ) by means of the form and given expression." Expressionistic art is an example. In such art, the forms of everyday realityfor example, the human shape or the shapes of everyday objectsare distorted in such a way that this distortion expresses a power, or reality, that manifests itself by the very way in which it breaks through the form and content of the objects. A theology of culture undertakes to interpret the meaning of this "substance" (Gehalt ), or depth content, which thus breaks through the form into the content. Accordingly, an interpretation of culture always involves a reference to three elements of cultural works: the form, the content (Inhalt ), and the substance (Gehalt ).

In the spring of 1929 Tillich accepted a call to teach philosophy and sociology at the Univeristy of Frankfurt. It was there that, in 1933, he published the work that was to cause his emigration to the United States, Die sozialistische Entscheidung (The Socialist Decision ). In content, this was a cautious analysis of socialism and a critique of unrestrained capitalism. It was based upon the idea of kairos (right time)the idea that, even politcally, there are "right" times for accomplishing certain thingsand upon an analysis of German democrary as only an abstract, not yet a real, democrary. Tillich drew the conclusion that the time was ripe for a new socialism, specifically, for a religious socialism that could incorporate democracy. National Socialism, however, was not what Tillich envisaged. Hence, the essay also contained a criticism of the totalitarian element in the National Socialist movement, and as a result Tillich became one of the many educated Germans who emigrated under the threat of those years as the movement developed.

Tillich left Germany in October 1933. In February 1934 he began his long teaching career at Union Theological Seminary in New York, remaining there until his retirement in 1955. He then became University Professor at Harvarda great distinctionand in 1962 he became, with similar distinction, the Nuveen Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago. His last public address, "The Significance of the History of Religions for the Systematic Theologian," delivered at the University of Chicago shortly before his death on October 22, 1965, reflected the direction that his thought had taken toward the questions raised by the encounter of Christianity with other religions. These differed from the questions he had treated in his earlier works because they involved differences in the religious symbols themselves.

Theory of Religion and Symbols

Tillich's major work is the three-volume Systematic Theology, in which Tillich undertakes to interpret Christian symbols so as to show how they provide answers to ontological questions. Through the "method of correlation," he shows how the question of the meaning of being (the ontological question) is correlated with the symbol of God as its answer (the theological answer). The symbol God is the reality that answers the question of the meaning of being. In the five divisions of Systematic Theology, Tillich provides, on the one hand, an analysis of the three basic ways in which the ontological question is asked and, on the other hand, an interpretation of religious symbols in which he shows how the symbols present the reality that answers the question of the meaning of being as such. Simply put, the three basic questions are these: What is the meaning of being itself? What is the meaning of (human) existence? What is the meaning of life? The first question, answered by the symbol God, is occasioned by the finitude of human being. The second question, answered by the symbol of Christ, is occasioned by the contradictoriness (estrangement) of the human beingthe fact that things are not what they should be and could be. The third question, answered by the symbol of the Spirit, is occasioned by the ambiguity of actual lifethe fact that life is a mixture of being and nonbeing, of the good and the bad, of the creative and the destructive. The symbol God presents the meaning of the finitude of being; the symbol Christ presents the meaning of the contradictoriness of existence; and the symbol Spirit presents the meaning of the ambiguity of actual life. The actual human situation is that of life, in which the finitude of being and the contradictoriness of existence as such are always ambiguously mixed. To say that "God," "the Christ," and "the Spirit" are symbols is to say that they actually convey the reality of the answer that they represent. In other words, as a symbol, the word "God" (or the meaning and image borne by that word) actually presents an ultimate meaning in the finitude of being in the world; as a symbol, the word or the image or the history connected with "the Christ" conveys a real power to bear the contradictions and meaninglessness of reality without being overwhelmed by them; and the symbol of "the Spirit" is the actual presence of an unambiguous meaning that can be discerned through the ambiguities of life.

Through this method of correlation, Tillich intended to assign an equal importance to the question of being, which is the main subject matter of philosophy (or ontology), and to God as the symbol in which the meaning of being is present, which is the main subject matter of theology. The correlation between the two is formulated in the statement "God is being-itself." That is to say, what is present in the symbol God is also the reality to which the ontological concept of being-itself refers.

Besides the method of correlation, Tillich's distinctive contribution to Christian theology lies in three characteristics of his work. The first is his application of the Protestant principle of justification to the realm of theoretical thought. One who doubts the reality of God knows the truth despite that doubt, just as one who sins is justified despite the sin; the reality of God shows itself to the human mind despite the doubt, just as the goodness of God appears in human actions despite their imperfection. The second characteristic of Tillich's theology appears in his theology of culture. This theology of culture is based on the conception that culture itself is capable of expressing, indirectly, the ultimate meaning that is intended by religious faith. Thus, in his analysis of contemporary culture Tillich showed how, as culture, it did express indirectly what religion expresses directly. The third characteristic, which is at the basis of the method of correlation used in Systematic Theology, is the idea that philosophy, which asks the question of the meaning of being as such, and religion, which is based upon the reality shown in the symbol of God, cannot be reduced to each other, and they cannot be derived from each other, but they can be "correlated." What human beings seek when they ask the question of the meaning of being can be correlated with what human beings receive through the meaningfulness of religious symbols. Accordingly, Tillich's definition of faith as "ultimate concern"in the sense of one's being ultimately concerned about that which concerns one unconditionallyimplies both the ontological question of the meaning of being and also the symbol God as the presence of being-itself, which, as such, is beyond both being and nonbeing.

Tillich's wide influence, especially in the United States, is attributable to the ecumenical character of this theology, to the effectiveness of his teaching, the appeal of his work to professionals as well as to the laity, and, no doubt, to his extraordinary ability to relate theology to the issues of the time.


The most complete biography of Tillich is that of Wilhelm Pauck and Marion Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought, vol. 1, Life (New York, 1976); the projected volume 2 was never published. A highly compact but excellent interpretive study of the unity of his life and thought is the pamphlet by Carl Heinz Ratschow, Paul Tillich (Iowa City, 1980). Of several autobiographical sketches, the most helpful one, first published in 1936, was published separately under the title On the Boundary (New York, 1966).

Tillich's collected works have been published in German in the Gesammelte Werke, 14 vols. (Stuttgart, 19591975), and in six supplementary volumes, Ergänzungsbände (Stuttgart, 19711982). Volume 14 contains an index and bibliography, including a list of unpublished manuscripts in the Tillich Archives at the Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Paul-Tillich-Archiv at the University of Marburg, Germany. Among Tillich's major works are The Socialist Decision (1933), translated by Frederick Sherman (New York, 1977), Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19511963), What Is Religion? (New York, 1969), The Protestant Era (essays edited by James Luther Adams, Chicago, 1948), The Courage to Be (New Haven, Conn., 1952), Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago, 1955), Theology of Culture (New York, 1959), Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (New York, 1963), and Dynamics of Faith (New York, 1957), the last of which provides perhaps the best introduction to his thought.

A useful variety of critical and appreciative responses to Tillich's thought is contained in The Theology of Paul Tillich, 2d rev. ed., edited by Charles W. Kegley (New York, 1982), with three new essays and a revised bibliography. Responses to his theory of religious symbolism are contained in Religious Experience and Truth: A Symposium, edited by Sidney Hook (New York, 1961); included in the volume are two basic essays by Tillich. An excellent brief account of Tillich's religious socialism is John R. Stumme's introduction to the English translation of Tillich's The Socialist Decision (New York, 1977). A more recent secondary study is Mystical Heritage in Tillich's Philosophical Theology, edited by Gert Hummal and Doris Lax (Münster, 2000).

Robert P. Scharlemann (1987 and 2005)

Paul Johannes Tillich

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Paul Johannes Tillich

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), German-American Protestant theologian and philosopher, ranks as one of the most important and influential theologians of the 20th century. He explored the meaning of Christian faith in relation to the questions raised by philosophical analysis of human existence.

Together with thinkers such as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich helped revolutionize Protestant theology. All three were influenced by the recovery of neglected insights in the Bible, the discovery of existentialism through the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, and the crisis in Western culture wrought by World War I.

Tillich was born on Aug. 20, 1886, in Starzeddel, Prussia, the son of Johannes Tillich, a Lutheran minister. Paul studied at the universities of Berlin (1904-1905, 1908), Tübingen (1905), Halle (1905-1907), and Breslau. He received his doctorate from Breslau (1911) and the licentiate of theology from Halle (1912).

German Career

Ordained a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1912, Tillich served as a chaplain in the German army throughout World War I. During the years between the war and the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933, he was actively involved in the religious-socialist movement in Germany along with others such as Martin Buber. The religious socialists rejected the traditional otherworldliness and individualism of the dominant forms of Christianity and joined in the German socialist struggle for wider justice and social opportunity; but they sharply criticized Marxism and other purely secular forms of socialism for their utopian illusions and purely technocratic approach to human problems.

Tillich taught theology at the University of Berlin (1919-1924) and then was appointed professor of theology at the University of Marburg. That same year he married Hannah Werner; they had a son and a daughter. He next taught theology at the universities of Dresden (1925-1929) and Leipzig (1928-1929) and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt am Main (1929-1933). At Frankfurt, he produced his chief German writings. The best known of these, translated into English as The Religious Situation (1932), sets forth Tillich's central concept of religion as the universal dimension of "ultimate concern" in all human life and culture and interprets the transformations taking place in 20th-century European politics, arts, and thought in light of this concept.

American Career

With the rise of Hitler, Tillich became an outspoken opponent of Nazism, and in 1933 he was dismissed from his position at Frankfurt. He emigrated to the United States, invited by the distinguished theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where Tillich remained until 1955.

In The Interpretation of History (1936) Tillich developed the classical Greek idea of kairos (the right time), used in the New Testament to describe the historic disclosure of God in Christ. Prominent in The Protestant Era (1948), a collection of his articles exploring aspects of modern history from a theological perspective, is the key term, "the Protestant principle"—a necessary critical principle for both living religion and theological reflection which protests against identifying anything finite with the infinite God.

Tillich's first collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations (1948), was followed by The New Being (1955) and The Eternal Now (1963). Many people have found his sermons the most helpful way to enter his thought, here fleshed out concretely in biblical interpretation and in application to contemporary life.

Tillich was profoundly influenced by, and contributed to, depth psychology. The Courage To Be (1952) perhaps best embodies his application of psychological insights to a theological description of man with his analysis of the nature of anxiety. He turned his attention to basic problems of Christian ethics in Love, Power and Justice (1954), and in Morality and Beyond (1963).

His Chief Work

Systematic Theology (vol. 1, 1951; vol. 2, 1957; vol. 3, 1963) is Tillich's chief work and the most complete exposition of his theology. Its structure is based upon his "method of correlation, " which "explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence." In the first volume he sets forth in greatest detail his important and much-debated interpretation of God, not as a being among beings but as Being-itself, the "ground and power of being" in everything that exists.

Tillich's career ended with distinguished professorships at Harvard (1955-1962) and the University of Chicago (1962-1965), where he taught to overflowing classrooms. Among his books published during this period or posthumously, the following should be noted: Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (1955), Dynamics of Faith (1957), Theology of Culture (1959), Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions (1963), Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Thought (1967), A History of Christian Thought (1968), and What is Religion? (1969). In addition, he wrote literally hundreds of articles for religious and secular periodicals.

In 1940 Tillich had become an American citizen. Until the end of World War II he remained politically active, participating in the religious-socialist movement in the United States and serving as chairman of the Council for a Democratic Germany. He was chairman of the Self-help for Émigrés from Central Europe and was generally active in refugee work. He was frequently called upon to contribute to the national and international ecumenical movement. He received many honorary doctorates and awards. Perhaps none gave him deeper pleasure than those bestowed by his homeland, Germany, in the years after the war.

A man of average height and build, with a shock of white hair in his later years, Tillich was reserved but keenly and warmly interested in other persons. His profound love of nature manifested itself in his religious outlook. In the midst of a still-active career, he died in Chicago on Oct. 22, 1965. With his broad humanistic interests and approach to Christianity, he communicated to many in modern secular culture a renewed appreciation of religion as man's universal "ultimate concern, " manifested in all human activities.

Further Reading

Tillich's most extended autobiographical account is On the Boundary (1966). A brief, clearly written introduction to his life and thought is Guyton B. Hammond, The Power of Self-transcendence: An Introduction to the Philosophical Theology of Paul Tillich (1966). Also brief is David Hopper, Tillich: A Theological Portrait (1967), which combines biography with a scholarly critique of Tillich's Systematic Theology. More extensive and technical studies include J. Heywood Thomas, Paul Tillich (1963), and Alexander J. McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich (1964). See also Carl J. Armbraster, The Vision of Paul Tillich (1967). Noted specialists in various fields assess Tillich's life and work in an anthology of essays, The Intellectual Legacy of Paul Tillich, edited by James R. Lyons (1969); and his place in history is considered in Alvin C. Porteous, Prophetic Voices in Contemporary Theology (1966).

Additional Sources

Newport, John P., Paul Tillich, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991, 1984.

Pauck, Wilhelm, Paul Tillich, his life & thought, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.

Ratschow, Carl Heinz, Paul Tillich, Iowa City, Iowa (Gilmore Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242): North American Paul Tillich Society, 1980.

Taylor, Mark Kline, Paul Tillich: theologian of the boundaries, London; San Francisco, CA: Collins, 1987.

Tillich, Hannah, From place to place: travels with Paul Tillich, travels without Paul Tillich, New York: Stein and Day, 1976. □

Tillich, Paul Johannes Oskar

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Tillich, Paul Johannes Oskar (1886–1965). Christian Protestant theologian. He was born in Prussia, and after education at Berlin and Tübingen, and ordination in 1912, he served as a chaplain in the First World War, receiving the Iron Cross. He became professor at Union Theological Seminary until he retired in 1955. He then became professor, first at Harvard, then at Chicago. He was a major and innovative theologian, taking his point of departure from Schelling: symbols, as human creations of meaning (participating in the reality to which they point) mediate between bare objects and conventional signs. But humans are always involved existentially in questions (arising from limitation and above all from awareness of the personal ending which is to come) and predicaments (situations which seem to lead to self-defeat). These questions and predicaments have no solution (and are thus empty symbols in quest of meaning) until they are brought into relation with religious symbols which offer the meaning sought. This is the basis for the principle of correlation which led him to explore the theology of culture. In so far as forms of cultural expression set forth something of unconditional importance, they are expressing that which is religious. Unconditional meaning (Gehalt) breaks into the form of a cultural work in such a way that the content of the work can be seen to be a matter of indifference in relation to it. Tillich was later to call the unconditional meaning ‘ultimate concern’. Religion then becomes the state of being unconditionally concerned about that which concerns one unconditionally. Thus ‘God’ is in no way a synonym for ‘ultimate concern’. Indeed, that which is truly God, the God above God, cannot be spoken of except as being-itself: ‘God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.’ But ‘God’ enters our vocabulary because the ground of being enters our lives as the answer to the question implied by human finitude. Time is thereby not simply transition but kairos, opportunity.

Not surprisingly, Tillich's ideas are communicated, not simply in technical works (e.g. Systematic Theology, 3 vols., 1953–63), but also in sermons (e.g. The Shaking of the Foundations, 1948; The Eternal Now, 1963) and lectures (e.g. The Courage to Be, 1952).