Paul Tillich is an impressive representative of German scholarship. He is a student of man in all his moods and in all his occupations, and he brings to this concentrated but wide-ranging study that rather typically human but especially Germanic desire to synthesize his findings and enclose within his intellectual grasp an explanation for the totality of things.
Like Hegel before him, Tillich grasps the world of man in an extraordinarily comprehensive way, but unlike his predecessor he is passionately concerned about the individual. The existential reaction to Hegel (especially Kierkegaard) has left its mark on Tillich. He is always trying to understand and explain the human situation and to spell out the urgently needed solution that revelation has disclosed and that philosophy interprets and confirms. Thus Tillich is concerned not only to understand but also to preach, to come to terms with what man needs to know within his heart in the midst of what it may be possible for him to know with his mind. This combination of learning and preaching, of the scholar and the pastor, gives Tillich’s work its dynamic and draws even from his critics words of high praise.
It is simply not possible to summarize the complex philosophical theology of Paul Tillich in a brief space. We must content ourselves here with drawing attention to some of the main features in the variegated landscape of his thought and offering some evaluation of these from the point of view of a more deliberately biblical theology. We shall examine in order what Tillich has to say about God, Christ, and man.
The God Who Is Known
Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God, published in 1963, popularized some of Tillich’s views about God. Robinson dismissed the old idea of the localized “God out there”—the Transcendent Being who maintains his three-decker universe from afar—and replaced it with Tillich’s conception of God as “the ground of our being”—that with which we are inextricably involved and which is disclosed in all our moments of ultimate concern. Tillich himself says:
The being of God is being-itself. The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude, especially to space and substance. Even if he is called the “highest being,” this situation is not changed.… Many confusions in the doctrine of God and many apologetic weaknesses could be avoided if God were understood first of all as being-itself or as the ground of being. The power of being is another way of expressing the same thing in a circumscribing phrase [Systematic Theology, Nisbet, 1968 (combined volume), I, 261].
Since God is the ground of being, he is the ground of the structure of being. He is not subject to this structure; the structure is grounded in him. He is this structure, and it is impossible to speak about him except in terms of this structure. God must be approached cognitively through the structural elements of being-itself. These elements make him a living God, a God who can be man’s concrete concern. They enable us to use symbols which we are certain point to the ground of reality [p. 264].
At least two questions are involved here: What does it mean to say that God is being-itself or the ground of our being? And what does it mean to say that we use symbols as pointers to this ground of all reality?
In answer to the first question Tillich describes the relationship between being-itself and all finite things as follows:
As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of being—the world. Being-itself is beyond finitude and infinity; otherwise it would be conditioned by something other than itself, and the real power of being would lie beyond both it and that which conditioned it. Being-itself infinitely transcends every finite being. There is no proportion or gradation between the finite and the infinite. There is an absolute break, an infinite “jump.” On the other hand, everything finite participates in being-itself and in its infinity. Otherwise it would not have the power of being. It would be swallowed up by non-being, or it never would have emerged out of non-being. This double relation of all beings to being-itself gives being-itself a double characteristic. In calling it creative we point to the fact that everything participates in the infinite power of being. In calling it abysmal we point to the fact that everything participates in the power of being in a finite way, that all beings are infinitely transcended by their creative ground [p. 263].
When, however, this creative ground, being-itself, is analyzed, it is notoriously difficult to know what is really meant, as Neis Ferré noted:
In a personal conversation where we could pursue the problem for hours Tillich admitted that reality could not be limited to the sum total of finite existences. Then was meaning only verbal, or ideal, lacking all isness in itself? No, by no means! Then there is reality, as eternal isness, more and other than our world of experiences? Yes, of course. But this reality cannot exist, because to exist is to stand out in separation from? It is reality as not only meaning but as the power for being and for order in the realm of existence. And this power is? Yes, I’d even be willing to call this power “living, the living God.” But this God is neither the dimension of depth of finite beings separately or together, nor is it a separate entity, some subsistent reality more and other than the finite? This point I cannot clarify any more. Does this mean that you want to have your cake and eat it too? [Paul Tillich, Retrospect and Future, Abingdon, 1966, p. 14].
Ferré concludes, “Thus Tillich in fact had no solution. His solution was pseudo-theological. Within his own presuppositions he failed to offer a theological ultimate that could stand the light of full analysis” (p. 15).
Working against the background of the Greek idealist metaphysicians (Parmenides, Plato, and Plotinus) and with an obvious debt to the more recent German tradition of philosophical idealism (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel), Tillich has freed the reality of God from all conceptual inadequacies only at the cost of making it impossible to say anything about him at all! Gathering into himself the dialectic of being and non-being, God survives as that which gives being and meaning to all else but who himself falls outside the boundaries of intelligibility. This is a most costly achievement.
In answer to the second question Tillich says, “The statement that God is being-itself is a non-symbolic statement. It does not point beyond itself. It means what it says directly and properly; if we speak of the actuality of God we first assert that he is not God if he is not being-itself” (Systematic Theology, I, 264). He continues, “If anything beyond this bare assertion is said about God, it no longer is a direct and proper statement, no longer a concept. It is indirect, and it points to something beyond itself. In a word, it is symbolic” (p. 265).
In the second volume of his Systematic Theology Tillich returns to this topic and affirms that there are no nonsymbolic statements about God apart from this very affirmation itself! (And even this is only a statement about statements rather than a statement about God!) “Such a statement,” he says, “is an assertion about God which itself is not symbolic. Otherwise we would fall into a circular argument. On the other hand, if we make one non-symbolic assertion about God, his ecstatic-transcendent character seems to be endangered. This dialectical difficulty is a mirror of the human situation with respect to the divine ground of being” (II, 10).
All being participates in the ground of all being, God, and thus there is no moment at which we are not intimately involved in the being of God. The contact becomes authentic and significant, however, when we choose to be—when we are involved in moments of genuine and ultimate concern. These moments are moments of depth for the individual and may not consciously assume a religious form.
From these wells of genuine experience at depth we draw our valid symbols of the ultimate. But symbols they remain, and their validity continues only so long as they are still felt to express truth—existential truth, truth at depth. “Religious symbols,” says Tillich, “open up the experience of the dimension of this depth in the human soul. If a religious symbol has ceased to have this function, then it dies. And if new symbols are born, they are born out of a changed relationship to the ultimate ground of being, i.e., to the Holy” (Theology of Culture, Oxford, 1959, p. 59).
By this means Tillich is able to unify the varieties of religious experience and even to overcome the dichotomy between the religious and the secular, between theism and atheism. He seeks to expose the religious character of all authentic living (Heidegger) and to commend the value of religious symbols as most adequate pointers to the nature of the Real disclosed in such living. At the same time he is sensitive to the human habit of treating such symbols as ultimate in themselves and thereby falling into the trap of idolatry. “Religion is ambiguous and every religious symbol may become idolatrous, may be demonized, may elevate itself to ultimate validity although nothing is ultimate but the ultimate itself; no religious doctrine and no religious ritual may be” (Theology of Culture, p. 66).
Tillich seems to have achieved a great deal, but once again the price is very high. The vital link between the symbol and the thing symbolized he calls “participation,” but one looks in vain for a clarification of this term. The lack is critical; it severs us from the possibility of knowing (i.e., with the mind) what is true and shuts us up to an “awareness” or mystical apprehension of God (Tillich’s self-confessed debt to Jacob Boehme is significant) that cannot be given adequate verbal expression.
Thus an existential withdrawal from objectivity combined with a preference for a mystical “knowing” of reality (as conceived within a tradition of philosophical idealism) has produced a symbolic theology that injects into Christianity an epistemological uncertainty and religious comprehensiveness that are quite foreign to its original character. These two characteristics, “uncertainty” and “comprehensiveness,” are, in fact, interlocking, and both are rooted in a philosophy of being that is fundamental to Tillich’s whole outlook. They strikingly show that biblical theology cannot be poured into a Tillichian mold without becoming something profoundly different in the process.
Christianity is a religion of revelation, and the appropriateness of its theological language is based on that revelation. By making his philosophy more ultimate than revelation, Tillich loses Christian theology within his ontology. As David Cairns says:
I believe that in fact the symbols—for example the symbols of Fatherhood, Lordship and Creatorhood—do refer to God. But this is not because he is immediately known as the infinite ground of being, but because he has revealed himself to us through these symbols which he has chosen as fitting. And in so revealing himself he gives to them a partially new meaning, so that they are able to express his nature and his attributes to us. The justification of the symbols is thus not philosophical but a result of the special historical revelation [God Up There?, Saint Andrew, 1967, p. 63].
The following are excerpts from an editorial in “Pravda,” the leading daily paper of the Communist party in the U.S.S.R. A translation of the editorial made by John H. Ryder, S.J., was published in the August–September, 1971, issue of “Religion in Communist Dominated Areas.”
The success of atheistic work depends very much on the degree of knowledge of the teams of the propagandists, their experience and skill. Taking that into account, the Party committees have begun to go to more trouble over them, training the teams in the faculties and departments of the evening universities of Marxism-Leninism and in various seminars and schools.…
The press has a wide range of opportunities to intensify anti-religious publicity. The publishers of newspapers and magazines should print material on atheism regularly, more frequently induce persons who have broken with religion to write about it, and throw light upon what is being done. The mass-media of information, television, radio and film, as well as the educational cultural institutions should more often address their impact to the minds and hearts of believers.
The role of literature and art in the formation of the world view of the Soviet man, his moral convictions and his spiritual culture, and the war against survivals from the past, is increasing. The pen of the writer and the brush of the artist are called upon to serve in the noble cause of the atheistic education of the workers and of exposing the anti-scientific nature of religious concepts which are foreign to us.
One place where, especially, religious preconceptions can be conquered is the school and the specialized intermediate and higher institutions of learning. Teachers and the professorial lecture-staff have the duty to follow through in their pupils and students.
Upbringing in godlessness goes hand in hand with criticism of bourgeois religious propaganda. Convincingly to pull to pieces the works of present-day theologians and propagators of religion one must show how reactionary clericalism is in the capitalist lands; one has to lay bare how they try to use religious concepts to “soften” socialist theory, and their efforts to confront the ideals of Communism with religious performances and to inflame religious fanaticism.
What is needed most of all for the forming of a new man is unyielding war against religious patterns of thought (which have no place alongside a materialistic world-view, social, scientific and technical progress) and the suppressing, once for all, of those relics from the past.
Bruce L. Smith is a senior lecturer at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. He has the B.D. (London University) and Th.Schol. (Australian College of Theology). This article is taken from a Tyndale Paper, read to the Tyndale Fellowship of Australia in 1970.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.