Paul Johannes Tillich’s subjective search for ultimates ended last month. The world-renowned theologian succumbed to a heart ailment in a Chicago hospital at age seventy-nine.
Did he ever define death? Probably not, but he once said it “has become powerful in our time, in individual human beings, in families, in nations.… But death is given no power over love. Love is stronger. It creates something new out of the destruction caused by death.”
If that observation was ambiguous, it was not untypical. Tillich was quoted by many more people than understood him. The terms most associated with his thought—“ground of being,” “the unconditioned,” “ultimate concern”—promise to be part of the language for a long time. (See the editorial on page 30.)
The career of Tillich was rather evenly divided between the Old World and the New. His life in Germany was dramatic. It ranged from chaplain service for four years in the Kaiser’s army and a little-known wartime marriage that ended in divorce, to a confrontation with the Hitler regime in the thirties. By contrast, his life in the United States was quiet and rather colorless, though it was in this period that he gained most of his theological prestige.
He was forty-seven when he came to America, an age when most men are at the height of their careers. He knew only a smattering of English then, but was to write fifteen books in his new language. Perhaps because of this late start, Encyclopaedia Britannica included no article on him until the year of his death.
Tillich was doubtless one of the most influential religious minds of modern times, but that influence is hard to capsulize. He was a philosopher among theologians, a theologian among philosophers. He stressed the need to talk to modern ...1
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