Tillich, Paul

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Born in Starzeddel, Germany, on August 20, Paul Johannes Tillich (1886–1965) explored the theological and philosophical depths of contemporary culture. His experiences as a German army field chaplain in World War I shook Tillich's confidence in Western civilization, leading him to question its cultural and religious assumptions. In a series of professorships culminating in an appointment at the University of Frankfurt he spelled out his "theology of culture," exploring the unconscious, self-evident faith implicit in ostensibly secular social thought and structures. After he was dismissed from his professorship on April 13, 1933, by the Nazi government, on November 3 of that year Tillich arrived in the United States, where he held positions at Union Theological Seminary, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. He died on October 22 in Chicago.

Tillich understood technology as an adjusting of means to an end. That process is present in animal behavior such as the building of a nest, but human technology transcends organic processes by making tools for unlimited use. Tillich called the technical forms closest to natural processes "unfolding" technologies, for example, cattle breeding; those technical forms conserve and develop the potentialities implicit in natural forms. "Realizing" technologies such as musical instruments represent the direct expression of spirit in symbolic productions. "Transforming" technologies, exemplified by machines, destroy living connections by imposing purposes that are not implicit in natural forms.

Tillich defined science (Wissenschaft) as any methodologically disciplined cognitive approach to reality. In the subject-object structure of knowing, science separates itself from its object. For Tillich modern science is also a form of controlling knowledge or technical rationality because of its intimate connection to technological application.

Science and technology are "ambiguous," Tillich argued, both creative and destructive. They provide liberation from superstition and debilitating work but are enslaving in other ways. This shadow side of science and technological development arises not from their essential structures but from their isolation from wider contexts of meaning and their domination (what Tillich calls imperialism) over other ways of knowing and acting. In this fallen state of autonomy they achieve a quasi-religious status as "scientism" and "technicism." Along with capitalism they form a trinity of social forces that determine the religious situation of modernity.

The fulfillment of scientific and technological possibilities cannot come from their subjection to political or religious authority, however. That would constitute the imposition of "heteronomy," or determination from outside. Science must be free to question every presupposition, Tillich argued, or it loses its character as science. The creative potential of science and technology must proceed though an autonomy aware of its own depth to become "theonomous," or transparent to the ground of being (God), and thus reunited with broader conceptions of the meaning of life.

Ambiguity as the mixture of creativity and destructivity pervades technological production as the tools that liberate humanity also subject humankind to the rules of the making of those tools. Ambiguity is manifest in humanity's limited ability to adapt itself to limitless technical productivity, including atomic weapons. It is revealed in the emptiness created by the production of gadgets, which represent means that become their own end. It is manifest in an objectification of both natural objects and persons that transforms both into things. Neither the external restrictions of heteronomy (including religious determination) nor the fallen autonomy of running ahead indefinitely in a meaningless world is adequate to overcome these ambiguities.

Scientism and technicism must be overcome by what Tillich calls theonomy. Theonomy does not prescribe particular technological objects but instead calls for the creation of technical Gestalten (wholes) that people can love for the form and meaning embodied in them. It does this through production that follows rather than precedes human needs and maintains the intrinsic power in things. It would not halt scientific inquiry into the nature of the atom, for example, but would ban the destructiveness of inventions such as the atomic bomb by limiting the desire to create such devastation. Theonomy demands that people be treated as a ends rather than means, overcoming technological structures of dehumanization. It resists the attempt to control knowledge or monopolize the cognitive function, influencing science indirectly by determining the attitude and style of scientific creations.

Science is ambiguous in that the observer remains estranged from objects, examining them for the sake of domination. It proceeds through observation and conclusion. However, the observed changes, in the process of being observed, result in the discovery not of the "real" but of an encountered reality. Science carries unexamined assumptions into arguments that may influence its discoveries, with every statement about an object adopting concepts that require further definition, ad infinitum.

Autonomous reason, without the depth of reason (the true-itself), is driven to solve its dilemmas by combating relativism with absolutism, formalism with emotionalism, and subjectivism with objectivism. In theonomy, however, reason is grounded in the depth of reason, leading toward a more inclusive pattern of participation and insight, delving not only into the nature but also into the ultimate meaning and existential significance of things. Science tends toward a nominalistic form of methodological reductionism that is manifest in empiricism and positivism. Cut off from the depth of reason, scientism creates its own quasi-religious myth of a meaningless universe that swallows everything, including scientific passion. Theonomy, however, rejects an "objective" approach that loses its objectivity by grasping only one element of an object and not the whole, reducing reality to its own terms.

Contemporary technological society is ambiguous, Tillich states, just like the technological era that brought it into being. The task of a theonomous technological society would be to move autonomy to its own depth, making things and structures transparent to the ground of their being, thus making them not only useful but significant components of a meaningful world.

Few modern theologians have attempted the broad and deep conversation Tillich carried on with political, social, economic, and cultural phenomena. His distinctively neoclassical style of thought, however, is more intelligible to those steeped in the European intellectual traditions than to those grounded in pragmatic American thought. The theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), in contrast, is more accessible to readers in the United States. For those who can negotiate his prose, however, Tillich provides a systematic and comprehensive ethical, philosophical, and theological assessment of modernity, from art and architecture to space travel.


SEE ALSO Christian Perspectives.


Thomas, J. Mark. (1987). Ethics and Technoculture. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. This book reviews the evaluation of technological society in the thought of Talcott Parsons, Herbert Marcuse, Martin Heidegger, and Paul Tillich, arguing that the presuppositions of each thinker determine the terms of his social and ethical judgment.

Thomas, J. Mark. (1990). "Are Science and Technology Quasi-Religions?" In Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 10, ed. Frederick Ferré. Greenwich, CT: Jai Press. This essay uses thought within the "civil religion" debate and the work of Paul Tillich to analyze the proposition that science and technology constitute quasi-religions. It concludes that they are not quasi-religions but that scientism and technicism are.

Tillich, Paul. (1956). The Religious Situation. New York: Meridian. Originally written in 1926, this book explores the religious situation of modernity as it has been determined by the divine trinity of science, technology, and capitalism.

Tillich, Paul. (1963). Systematic Theology, vol. III. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. The third and final volume of Tillich's system explores the ways in which theonomy overcomes the ambiguities present in every dimension of finite life, including technological and scientific endeavors.

Tillich, Paul. (1988). The Spiritual Situation in Our Technical Society, ed. J. Mark Thomas. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. This collection of essays brings together Tillich's writings on science and technology from his earliest German period (1927) until almost the end of his career (1963). It organizes those essays in five parts, describing the situation in technical society; the structure and meaning of science and technology; science, technology and human self-interpretation; dehumanization in technical society; and the symbols and ambiguities of a technical society.

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